Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 9, Number 18
May 21, 2009
Opinion + Analysis
Slow the preschool bandwagon
A squishy skill worth celebrating
High rollers in the Big Easy
Keeping poor math performance at Bay
Get it write
This week, Mike and Stafford discuss Arne Duncan's overtures towards Detroit, whether Massachusetts disproves the argument that teachers' unions stymie reform, and a recent Associated Press article alleging U.S. performance internationally is not as bad as it seems. Then, Amber updates us on a new EdNext public opinion of school spending survey and Mickey (stepping in for Stafford) Rates That ban-offensive-lyrics-at-prom Reform.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 21, 2009
President Obama has pledged to spend $10 billion more a year on "zero to five" education, and his 2010 budget makes a $2 billion "down payment" on that commitment. (Billions more are already in the "stimulus" package.) Any number of congressional leaders want more preschool, as do dozens of governors. Not to mention the National Education Association and the megabucks Pew Charitable Trusts, which is underwriting national and state-level advocacy campaigns on behalf of universal pre-kindergarten. At least three states are already on board.
Underlying all this activity and interest is the proposition that government -- state and federal -- should pay for at least a year of preschool for every American 4-year-old. One rationale is to boost overall educational achievement. Another is to close school-readiness gaps between the haves and have-nots.
Almost nobody is against it. Yet everybody should pause before embracing it.
For all its surface appeal, universal preschool is an unwise use of tax dollars. In a time of ballooning deficits, expansion of preschool programs would use large sums on behalf of families that don't need this subsidy while not providing nearly enough help to the smaller number of children who need it most. It fails to overhaul expensive but woefully ineffectual efforts such as Head Start. And it dumps 5-year-olds, ready or not, into public-school classrooms that today are unable even to make and sustain their own achievement gains, much less to capitalize on any advances these youngsters bring
May 21, 2009
Perhaps the only confection to make it from campfire to laboratory, the marshmallow is an intellectual giant of the candy aisle. Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel has been using this squishy sugary treat to study the correlation between delayed gratification and future success. It seems that young children who can resist taking a bite for 15 minutes have, on average, SAT scores 210 points higher than their contemporaries with less willpower (holding out only 30 seconds). Moreover, "low-delayers" were more likely to have behavioral problems, difficulty maintaining friendships, and trouble dealing with stress than "high-delayers." It was only when Mischel caught up with the children as high school students--and periodically until their late 30s--that he realized the underlying ability: metacognition, the act of thinking about thinking. Proficiency in this somewhat esoteric skill helps us to overcome other shortcomings; in this case, a child with high levels of metacognition has the self-control to skip his favorite TV program in favor of completing his homework, or distract himself during the so-called "marshmallow test" by looking in the other direction or singing songs. But Mischel isn't the only one to recognize the importance of this skill; Dave Levin, founder of KIPP and superintendent that organization's schools in New York City, wants to know if it can be taught. He's collaborating with Mischel, hoping to incorporate the teaching of metacognition into KIPP's character-development curriculum. We're intrigued.
"Don't! The secret of self-control," by Jonah Lehrer,
May 21, 2009
Some charter school principals in New Orleans are making big bucks. Critics howl that no principal should get this kind of money--$200,000 a year in one case--from taxpayers. But before we get carried away by populist outrage, let's recall that charter schools are supposed to have autonomy, in particular over their budgets, specifically so that they can spend dollars in the ways they think best for their school or schools. While we'd love to see some achievement stats that justify these salaries, paying handsomely for what Jim Huger, chairman of Lafayette Parish's charter board, calls a "proven commodity" is these schools' prerogative. Powerful reform-minded principals can be the backbone of a successful school. Moreover, launching and sustaining new schools in NOLA, with its post-Katrina logistical and demographic challenges, is understandably taxing. And charter principals pick up some of the duties, such as overseeing finances and teacher and student recruitment, that are typically handled by (well-paid) superintendents in traditional public schools. Finally, these principals are at-will employees. Unlike their $60-80,000 a year traditional counterparts, subpar performance is followed by a quick exit. If performance is up to snuff, let's cut these schools some slack; that was, after all, the whole premise of charters in the first place.
"Local school principals' pay reaches new heights," by Brian Thevenot, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 17, 2009
May 21, 2009
It's no great secret that math is not the archetypal elementary teacher's forte. In fact, among the many subjects taught by all-in-one primary instructors, math is usually their weakest. Massachusetts, following in its laudable tradition of rigorous standards, is taking matters into its own hands and separately grading the beefed-up math portion of the elementary teacher licensure exam. Heretofore, since the math score was rolled in with literacy, social studies, etc., it was possible to pass the Bay State licensure exam for elementary teachers without answering a single math question correctly. This disturbing fact may only be surpassed by the even-more-distressing verity that nearly seventy-five percent of prospective elementary school teachers failed this new math requirement this spring. In response, state education commissioner Mitchell Chester has agreed to allow a 3-year grace period in which those who barely missed the passing score will still receive an initial license, pending a second attempt--and passing score--at the test within five years. This provision increases the passing rate from a dismal 27 percent to a depressing 42 percent. Considering that Massachusetts teacher candidates are likely among the best educated in the country, we can't help but wonder what the numbers might look in other states if they adopted similar policies.
"Aspiring teachers fall short on math," by James Vaznis, The Boston Globe, May 19, 2009
May 21, 2009
Any good writer knows that rigorous editing is essential to a polished product. Graffiti artists, take note. English teacher Beth Biskobing has had enough of the (often) obscene graffiti in her neighborhood. What galls her most? The poor grammar employed by these artistic vandals. So she's taken matters into her own hands by posting grammatical corrections of the offending taggers' verbiage in prominent places. For example, Biskobing's careful editorial pen turned "Where da bi**ches at?" into "Where are the female dogs?" "The use of the verb are allows you to write a COMPLETE SENTENCE. (Without it, you have a fragment, of course--missing the predicate of the sentence. The subject is dogs.)," she explains in one pamphlet. No activist, Biskobing hopes to use a smattering of public humiliation to convince the offenders to think twice before they spray. Gadfly is certain she would agree that such behavior is something up with which we will not put!
"Teacher attacks vandal's faulty grammar," by Jim Stingl, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 14, 2009
Schoolhouses, Courthouses and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America's Public Schools
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / May 21, 2009
Eric A. Hanushek and Alfred A. Lindseth
Princeton University Press
This important new book by economist Eric Hanushek and attorney Alfred Lindseth is the most cogent and comprehensive analysis of America's school-finance challenges that I have ever seen. They establish the fundamental problem, which is that achievement isn't where it needs to be. They show how education resources have soared even as test scores and graduation rates have stagnated. They examine the unsuccessful efforts of elected officials to solve this problem by fiddling with funding formulae, special programs, class sizes, and other input manipulations. They examine the even less successful (but often costlier) efforts to solve it via the courts--and show how none of the most popular approaches to revamping school financing via judicial action in the name of "adequacy" is based on anything real. As they dryly remark, "The absence of a systematic positive relationship between spending and achievement presents a real challenge to the consultants who purport to describe the spending necessary to achieve adequate levels of student achievement." Finally, they offer a plausible alternative approach, a "performance-based funding system" which, in shortest form, says "focus funding and policy decisions on student outcomes, provide incentives and funding to achieve outcome goals, and evaluate whether what is being done is consistent with improving student outcomes." (Yes, there are 70 more pages elaborating on this, how to do it--and what all needs to change (plenty) in order for it to happen.)
May 21, 2009
Center for American Progress, American Enterprise Institute, New Profit Inc., and Public Impact
This policy brief aims to illuminate the processes by which we can go about encouraging innovation to flourish, and in the process, hopes to exhibit the bipartisan nature of innovation in education reform. The authors surveyed a group of prominent education-reform entrepreneurs--e.g., Wireless Generation, The New Teacher Project, and New Schools Venture Fund--to glean their insights on the challenges and possibilities of entrepreneurship in this domain. They combined the survey results with their own good sense and found themselves agreeing--sadly--that inflexible bureaucracies, inaccessibility of capital, and a limited supply of talent typically work in tandem to stifle the creation and growth in this sector. Solutions are varied and broad: using better information to create a performance-oriented school culture, opening public education to multiple providers, making school districts into true "customers" by encouraging service providers to compete for business, and using public dollars to encourage these ventures. The report illustrates what each of these broad recommendations might look like in practice on all three levels of government. For example, to turn districts and other education providers into customers, federal officials might incentivize the wise and cost-efficient use of dollars, state policymakers can create standards for service vendors and revise funding formulae so that dollars follow the child (an idea we've also promoted), and districts can speed up the buying cycle by conducting audits and other transparency
May 21, 2009
Greg Forster and Christian D'Andrea
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
This report looks closely at how public and private school teachers rate their jobs, their schools' climate, and their level of influence on their own classrooms. "Most prominently," conclude the co-authors, "private schools provide teachers with more classroom autonomy, more supportive school climate, and better student discipline." They draw on data collected by the 2003-04 U.S. Department of Education's Schools and Staffing Survey, which included approximately 50,000 teachers. While these data are observational and cannot be used to statistically prove causation, "they do show us ways in which private schools differ from public schools." Specifically, private school teachers are much more likely to have influence on curriculum (47 percent vs. 22 percent), report very low levels of racial tension at school (72 percent vs. 43 percent), and claim they will teach as long as they are able (62 percent vs. 44 percent). Public school teachers, on the other hand, are more apt to say that violence is a problem at least once a month (48 percent vs. 12 percent) and that they would leave teaching if they could get a higher-paying job (20 percent vs. 12 percent). In what the authors feel "may be the most striking finding," public school teachers are also more likely to feel it is a waste of time to try to do their best (17 percent vs. 9 percent). From these data, Forster
New Millennium Schools: Delivering Six-Figure Teacher Salaries in Return for Outstanding Student Learning Gains
Stafford Palmieri / May 21, 2009
Matthew Ladner, Mark S. Francis, and Gergory E. Stone
The Goldwater Institute
This 26-page report packs quite a bit of punch for its length. It presents a teacher salary model that uses merit pay and class size bonuses to increase teacher salaries--and thus, we're told, teacher quality. Their plan has a few components. First, administrators should recruit teachers from the top 5 percent of college students and use value-added assessment to identify "master teachers" in a charter-school setting (the only current structure that would currently such a compensation system within public education). Having made public the performance of each individual teacher, these master teachers would be offered extra cash for every additional child they took into the classroom. The authors predict that it would be possible to pay teachers six-figure salaries if we assume class sizes in the low 30s; compensation would be based on a two-thirds to one-thirds ratio of per-pupil dollars, with teachers getting the larger share and the school using the smaller piece to cover marginal increases in facility costs for each additional student (e.g., desks, chairs, etc.). Having already given these "rockstar" teachers a potential salary boost, Ladner et al. propose four possible merit pay models that would reward the highest performing teachers based on their value-added assessment results, further compensating them for a job well done--and attracting even more high-quality candidates to the profession. This makes sense because teacher quality is the number one